Is and Isn't: A Context for Denzil Hurley

Is and Isn’t: A Context for Denzil Hurley situates the work of the Barbados-born American painter Denzil Hurley (1949-2021) within the discourses around abstraction that unfolded over the course of his career. Curator Melissa E. Feldman places the work of the artist, an important teacher who spent over twenty years at the University of Washington in Seattle, in relation to that of David Diao, Nikita Gale, Harmony Hammond, Nancy Haynes, Harriet Korman, James Little, Helen Mirra, and John Zurier. As the title suggests, Is and Isn’t identifies affinities as much as it does differences between Hurley and the featured artists, demonstrating the artist’s peerless approach to form as a register of experience.

Taking a cue from Hurley’s engagement with grids, monochromes, cutouts, and utilitarian materials, the work of these intergenerational artists, mainly based in California and New York reference aspects of Hurley’s reductivist practice and his unconventional approach to painting. These range from Haynes’s and Zurier’s atmospheric monochromes and Hammond’s feminist grids using household materials to Diao’s postmodernist yet laborious paintings. Hurley, along with Little, belongs to a generation of Black abstract painters that includes Sam Gilliam and Jack Whitten in search of a practice that allowed for open-ended experimentation with process and materials. Little’s Plebian Math (2022) shows his radical technique that involves applying a thick net of white oil paint across confetti-colored fields. Korman emerged in the 1970s with the feminist art movement but, like Little and Hurley, keeps politics out of the picture. Instead, she’s interested in formalism’s entanglements with angst, virtuosity and the sublime. Working a generation earlier, the Argentinian artist Paternosto created monolithic cutout paintings that claim a non-Western, non-industrial source for minimalism in ancient Amerindian culture.

Looking forward, Is and Isn’t: A Context for Denzil Hurley includes the work of two artists belonging to a younger generation. In her geometric soft sculptures, Mirra balances a minimalist foregrounding of materiality—albeit using hand woven sheep’s wool—with a systems-type conceptualism rooted in everyday routines. At the other extreme are Gale’s cagelike monochromes in which concrete-laden terry cloth strips weave through a three-dimensional aluminum grid. The knotted fabric resembles calligraphic gestural abstraction but also hastily wrapped bandages or a straight-jacket—pushing modernism into the political fray.

Is and Isn’t: a context for Denzil Hurley runs in tandem with Denzil Hurley: To be pained is to have lived through feeling, a selective overview of his work.